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University of Newcastle Library Guides

Systematic Reviews: What is a systematic review?

A guide to systematic review searching for University of Newcastle researchers

What is a systematic review?

A systematic review is a summary of the medical literature that uses explicit methods to perform a comprehensive literature search and critical appraisal of individual studies and that uses appropriate statistical techniques to combine these valid studies. (CEBM)

Key characteristics of a systematic review are:

  • a clearly stated set of objectives with pre-defined eligibility criteria for studies
  • an explicit, reproducible methodology
  • a systematic search that attempts to identify all studies that would meet the eligibility criteria
  • an assessment of the validity of the findings of the included studies, for example through the assessment of risk of bias
  • a systematic presentation, and synthesis, of the characteristics and findings of the included studies. (Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions, 2008, p. 6)

Meta analysis is a systematic review that uses quantitative methods to synthesize and summarize the results.


Systematic reviews - literature reviews: What's the difference?

  Systematic review Literature review
Question Focused on a single question Not necessarily focused on a single question, but may describe an overview
Protocol A peer review protocol or plan is included No protocol is included
Background Both provide summaries of the available literature on a topic
Objectives Clear objectives are identified Objectives may or may not be identified
Inclusion and exclusion criteria Criteria stated before the review is conducted Criteria may not be specified
Search strategy Comprehensive search conducted in a systematic way Strategy may not be explicitly stated
Process of selecting articles Usually clear and explicit Not described in a literature review
Process of evaluating articles Comprehensive evaluation of study quality Evaluation of study quality may or may not be included
Process of extracting relevant information Usually clear and specific Not clear or explicit
Results and data synthesis Clear summaries of studies based on high quality evidence Summary based on studies where the quality of the articles may not be expected. May also be influenced by the reviewer's theories, needs and beliefs
Discussion Written by an expert or group of experts with a detailed and well grounded knowledge of the issues


Library services to support systematic reviews

Library staff are available to consult with researchers, research groups and RHD students, as well as run workshops to:

  • Develop or refine review topics
  • Identify existing systematic reviews on a topic
  • Recommend appropriate databases and grey literature sources
  • Review search strategies
  • Develop search strategies to ensure all relevant studies are identified
  • Document search strategies
  • Advise on a citation management strategy
  • Advise on options for locating full-text items
  • Assist writing the literature search section
  • Update searches.

Debbie Booth
Research and Scholarly Communication Advisor
Room L307, Auchmuty Library
Phone: 02 492 15844